Charles T. Tart and Mysticism
ASCs and Ineffability

Charles T. Tart, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, has been a leading theoretician and researcher in the area of states of consciousness for three decades. Tart has applied his interpretive perspective to the study of religious experience and mysticism, too. Since the beginning of this century, under the influence of William James, mystical experience (and by extension mysticism) generally has been regarded as 'ineffable' (from a Latin root term; literally = unspeakable, incapable of description).

However, Tart's proposal about states of consciousness reframes the meaning of 'ineffability'. It proceeds on the basis of his (scientific or working and subject-to-revision) interpretive framework that supposes that human beings experience a number of discrete states of consciousness that one can learn to discern and to "map." At least some states can be induced routinely, e.g., by applying some specifiable procedure. Further, if one assumes that some particular discrete state is the typical, or normal, everyday, or base-line one, then others are by definition "altered" states (ASC for short).

There can be (if you read Tart as making a plausible programmatic proposal) or there is (if you read Tart and/or others as having accomplished enough of what the program anticipates to have "established" it) a science of states of consciousness.

The fact (or claim) that the variety of human experiences are "organized" into various states of consciousness implies that at least some of what one is able to experience in one state will be (practically speaking) unavailable, not part of one's "knowing how" or "knowing that" capacity, while one is in another state. If 'x' requires a specific altered state to become an item of experience, then 'x' is likely (perhaps even certainly) ineffable once one returns to the ordinary (or another) state of consciousness.

Tart noted that state-specific experiences may involve state-specific memory, i.e., they may be recallable and understandable when one returns to the same ASC in which they were first experienced, but otherwise unavailable.

Some home-spun examples: I don't drive my car to work when I am still asleep (although I may dream that I do), I cannot fathom why I married my partner when I am consumed by anger, I may experience "objective remorse" during or after meditation or contemplative prayer, I may enjoy insights while fasting or under nitrous oxide (see William James) that elude me or "make no sense" when I am back in a workaday mode pushing down my heavy lunch at a fast food restaurant, my creativity and sense of social responsibility may flag or disappear when I'm anxious about the outcome (see the Bhagavad Gita), and so forth.

Maxim: what is available [effable] in one state is unavailable [ineffable] in another. If discrete states of consciousness are mapped and confirmed by procedures that can be replicated by any trained person, the correlated notions of what is effable and what is ineffable relative to a particular state of consciousness must correspondingly be extended. What is effable and what is ineffable, then, are state-specific.

One might reply that there is no need to redefine 'ineffable' in these terms. But if one adopts a multiple-discrete-states model, then it not only makes sense to redefine 'ineffable', it is necessary to have some term to perform twin functions -- both "I can't say" [essentially, ultimately, or purely ineffable per se] and "I can say, but I assure you that you will not understand while in your present state" [ineffable relative to a specifiable state of consciousness]. Equally, "You can say, and I will sit here no more interested in it than a mule waiting for my corn, no matter how subtle, sensitive, sophisticated, or revelatory your communication. To me, in my present state, it is simply ineffable -- I may hear it, but I can't get it."

With regard to the study of religious experience and mysticism (whether via study of traditional texts by mystics who have somehow become accredited or authorized, or via exploration of other sorts of reports of such experience), Tart's framework (or something much like it) offers a basis for a grid against which "levels" or "stages" of consciousness may be plotted or measured. The volume that Tart edited on Transpersonal Psychology included contributions dealing with what many would count as traditional frameworks that acknowledge and encourage the development of capacities for mystical experience or something analogous to it.

If, however, one should assume that mystical experience is by definition only what is (essentially) ineffable, unpredicable and unpredictable, and therefore only-by-extension an experience at all, then the framework of discrete states may be of little relevance -- even if a valid science. What would seem to follow from that assumption would be pure silence. If it can't be said, it can't be sung, whistled, or electronically transmitted -- which would seem to rule out study and meaningful discussion.

I adopt the view that (a) study of religious experience and mysticism is inclusive of states preliminary to and subsequent to what might be regarded as the-purely-mystical-as-such (if such there be), (b) study of religious experience and mysticism is inclusive of techniques (spiritual technologies) that intend to dispose one toward altered and higher states of consciousness, and (c) study of religious experience and mysticism is inclusive of traditional (and some non-traditional) maps of states that might be experienced by those who are appropriately prepared.

In the end, it may be true that "words are inadequate to the experience" or that "true mysticism is too overwhelming to be expressed adequately in words." However, I assume that there is a long way that one can go in fruitful study and discussion of phenomena relevant to mysticism before reaching that point.

Nevertheless, this leaves unresolved questions. Does study of religious and mystical experience either require or benefit from participant-observation techniques? Can it be a descriptive-interpretive science? Does it require participation or apprenticeship in a traditional religious path? Is 'study of mysticism' misleading or misconceived, perhaps because (while it may be possible to study the Sufism of Rumi, or the text of The Cloud of Unknowing, or the imagery of the chariot and throne in Jewish mysticism) it is presumptuous and impossible to study 'religious experience' or 'mysticism' in general?

Mystics RWsPage